Sunday, 20 June 2010

Me, Me, Me - Writing in First Person

In class on Friday a by-product of the fiendish exercise I'd set was the number of people who ended up writing in a point of view they didn't normally use. I never write in the first person because when I started writing I didn't want to write about myself and writing in first person blurred the lines and I found it hard to maintain the distance between the character and myself. And having had success with third person, I've just stuck with it. (At some point I must experiment with first person, but not when I've got a novel to finish writing.)

First person has some real advantages - and disadvantages. The big advantage is immediacy. As a reader you really feel you know this character, you know how they think, how they feel, their ups and downs. The big disadvantage is immediacy. If the reader doesn't like the character or finds them irritating, annoying, ditsy, too stupid to live, whatever, then you're stuffed.

A character like Sherlock Holmes would be intolerable in the first person, always condescending to ordinary mortals for not being as brilliant as himself. No wonder the stories are written from the first person view point of Dr Watson, who is amazed at how clever Holmes is. The reader is placed somewhere between them for intelligence, brighter than Watson, but not keeping up with Holmes.

Character aside, you'd also have problems with plot with a first person Holmes - or Poirot, or Miss Marple. Think of the number of times these characters work out who the killer is, but hold the information back from their companions (and the readers) before revealing all at the incredible denouement. Often is the answer, if not every time. If we were in their heads we'd have access to that information. If the writer hides the information, they risk the wrath of the reader - which is what happened when Christie published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Poirot's Last Case.

The final major disadvantage of first person is that of reported action which, regular readers of my blog will know, sucks. The first person character has to be present at all the major events of the story. This can lead to awkward manoeuvring to get them there or set up the dreaded reported action scene. The other solution is to start with a statement such as:

"I wasn't there, but Freddie filled me in with such detail I could imagine every minute of it. He'd been fooling around with his old jalopy when Marigold turned up.
'Hey Freddie - take me for a ride?'
'Sure,' Freddie said, revving up the engine, eyes on Marigold's legs as she slipped into the passenger seat. etc"

Hmm. Only to be used if you absolutely have to...

Advantages of first person tomorrow, when I've had more time to think of them.

Who lives near Birmingham? On 23rd June 6.30 - 8.30 Lucy Diamond, Milly Johnson, Veronica Henry and me will be talking about writing at Birmingham Library. Come and meet us!


Jenny Haddon said...

So interesting.

I've done a couple of books in the first person (not published, maybe never will be).

I don't think the line between me and the character blurred, maybe because I felt I was acting as well as writing.

But then I was brought up on Robert Browning - remember MY LAST DUCHESS? And his big one, THE RING AND THE BOOK,is 12 dramtic monologues, two of them by the same person, but with his second monologue, much darker, dirtier and passionate. Scary stuff.

I did find ist person a limitation, because you can only put down on the page what your narrator knows. On the other hand, it's fun putting down what the narrator sees - and absolutely gets 180 degrees wrong. You really can't do that so well in third person, I think.

As an actress, have you never been tempted to write in the 1st person?

Sarah Duncan said...

I know I found it hard in the beginning to separate myself out from the 'I' I was writing about and made a conscious decision to write in third person - which I found difficult to do at first but is now 100% natural for me.

And I do act out all my scenes, doing all the characters and all the voices, so the third person doesn't stop that. In fact, I feel less self conscious writing in third, as if my personality has faded and all that's left are the characters. Dunno. I'll have to try first person again (when the current book is done).

Ooh yes, My Last Duchess. At drama school one of the guys - very good looking and charming - used to do it as one of his audition pieces and it was completely spine chilling. Unreliable narrators def one of the advantages for tomorrow.

Alison said...

When I started writing my first novel, I fell straight into first person - it seemed so natural! I expect there will be some leakage of my personality and experiences, but I know I'm not my protagonist. Funnily enough, although the 'I' voice is very personal, I find I can stand back.

OK, so I have a weird brain...

Sarah Duncan said...

I think that's what disconcerted me - that it felt so natural. Horses for courses, I suppose.

I was doing a reading with my fellow New Romantics and only one of us was using first person. It gave me a little bit of a jolt, which was weird.